While US Vice President Mike Pence’s target for a US human landing on the surface of the Moon was doubted by some – not least because a lunar lander would take years to develop – now there could be a solution.  Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos has  revealed in a presentation in Washington DC that his Blue Origin space company is close to completing the design of its Blue Moon lunar landing vehicle.

The 15 metric ton lander in fully loaded condition will be able to carry 3.6 metric tons to the lunar surface. Initially the craft would be used to transport unmanned rover vehicles and other equipment to the lunar surface. Such equipment would be lowered from the top of the lander onto the surface by a davit crane.  However later stretch tank versions can carry more than 6 metric tons, and would allow the use of a yet-to-be developed human carrying ascent vehicle.

Illustration showing Blue Moon lander with notional ascent vehicle. Courtesy: Blue Origin

The lander employs a new BE-7 engine which will use liquid hydrogen and LOx (liquid oxygen) as its propellants, the idea being that water ice detected in shadowed craters at the lunar poles could easily be turned into these so that eventually it could be relaunched as a reusable lander into orbit.  The other advantage that the combination has is that it can be used as a fuel cell power system, to allow a 2.5 kW power supply during lunar nights when alternative solar arrays would not work. The problem for this cryogenic propellant combination is storage. Liquid Hydrogen has to be kept below 252 degrees Celsius to minimise boil off.  According to reports, Jeff Bezos did not note when the first flight of the Blue Moon would take place, but is said to be aiming for 2024.

NASA appears to be serious about its target of returning humans to the Moon by 2024.  It has named the project, Protect Artemis after the Greek goddess who was the twin sister of Apollo – NASA’s original Moon landing project name. The White House is fully in support of Project Artemis and to make it work, the Trump Administration, has added US$1.6 billion to NASA’s US$21 billion request for the 2020 Fiscal Year.  About US$1 billion of this extra money will be spent on developing a lunar lander/ascent vehicle. The Lunar Gateway orbiting lunar space station itself is having its spending reduced by US$321 million as its initial number of modules are now reduced to just two.

By the way Artemis is the Greek Goddess of forests, young women and chastity, who is also closely connected with hunting (the Roman name equivalent is Diana). This new project name gives the project a feminine bent which will please many, while NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine notes that its name is appropriate given that Project Artemis will also land the first woman on the Moon.

However, the former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver has warned that the Artemis name may be an inauspicious choice given that in one story from Greek legend, the virginal goddess Artemis killed Orion the Hunter, the man she loved, after being tricked by Apollo into thinking that Orion had attacked one of her priestesses. Orion, by the way, is also the name of NASA’s main human lunar orbital transfer spacecraft which will be used on Project Artemis.

The Airbus DS stand’s Orion/Service Module model at IAC 2018 Bremen Courtesy: Seradata/David Todd

Comment by David Todd: The important thing for NASA is to use the SLS/Orion combination for lunar exploration while NASA can before it gets usurped by SpaceX and its Starship/Super Booster (aka BFS/BFR) combination or Blue Origin’s New Armstrong heavy lift rocket derivative of the New Glenn.

This writer notes that of the possible lunar exploration choices he suggested in his presentation at the British Interplanetary Society in London last year, the White House and NASA have intimated that they are likely take Option 2 (your correspondent’s second choice). This still uses a Lunar Gateway orbiting station (albeit in a cut down mode), but with an accelerated human lunar landing. Going for Option 2 has some merit – not least in providing a space station design which might one day replace ISS in low Earth orbit as well providing orbiting space station around the Moon.  However, it is higher cost and may be slow – although not as slow as the original NASA Lunar Gateway plan.

By the way, Option 1 was to cancel SLS altogether after the first manned flight of Orion EM-1. This is very low cost but is wasteful of all the investment in SLS. It is also too slow to get humans on the Moon, and is probably too high risk in that it risks all on commercial launchers and provides no successor to the ISS.

Similar to Robert Zubrin, your correspondent’s first choice was for Option 3 –  a more direct route to the lunar surface via a two-launch straight lunar landing mission architecture. This would have been followed by an Earth orbiting space station replacement for ISS, a derivative of which would also provide a Lunar Gateway space station for longer term lunar exploration/habitation.  See here (listed under Mars rocket – SpaceTrak subscription required) for the full presentation.